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Of Steering Wheels and Buggy Whips

Of Steering Wheels and Buggy Whips
by Roger C. Lanctot on 03-21-2016 at 12:00 pm

 At the heart of automated driving is control of the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals in the car. Based on NHTSA’s recently negotiated agreement with car makers, those selling cars in the U.S. will add automatic emergency braking to their cars by 2022. So it seems that we humans are already ceding control of the brake pedal. Can the steering wheel be far behind? (Cars with automated driving will also see the gear shift removed.)

A three-way battle is emerging for control of that steering wheel in the car. NHTSA and European regulators want to keep it in the car. Google wants to remove it. Tesla wants to leave steering wheel control entirely at the discretion of the driver at his or her own risk.

I mention Tesla because the company has managed to straddle NHTSA’s and SAE’s defined levels of automated driving to the consternation of the rest of the automotive industry. But more on this in a moment.

At the core of the battle is whether or not a computer can handle the steering entirely on its own or requires the help of the driver and, if it does require assistance, how much and under what conditions and legal obligations? Google is suggesting the computer can and should handle the entire steering process without human assistance. NHTSA and SAE believe the driver should be prepared and able to steer at all times within specified guidelines. Tesla wants to leave steering decisions to the computer or the driver depending on circumstances and at the driver’s risk and discretion with no guidelines.

(Clarification: Multiple car makers are preparing Level 3 automation for use in predefined areas with predictable automation activation and de-activation. This contrasts with the ad hoc Tesla approach.)

I met with a supplier of resistive touch sensors for steering wheels this week, Guttersberg Consulting, to explore this topic. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was actually the turn of the century and I was meeting with a maker of buggy whips. Aren’t steering wheels going to become superfluous? This gentleman assured me that steering wheels will continue to be in high demand far into the future.

Supporting his contention that steering wheels will endure is the preference expressed by regulators in the U.S. and Europe – that steering wheels remain in cars. (The Vienna Convention, which applies in Europe, also requires a driver to be physically present.) This executive from Guttersberg Consulting, living in Germany and, therefore, Europe, believes consumers everywhere are still enthusiastic about driving – which helps explain the interest in steering wheels and Level 3 automated driving.

Level 3 automated driving – based on NHTSA and SAE guidelines – is a hybrid driving experience that provides for the driver standing by, ready to re-take control of the car. Level 3 requires a driver detection system and a process for determining when the driver is present and when that driver must take control with a sufficient amount of time provided for transition to human driving.

Level 3 contrasts with the approach of Tesla Motors which has no system for driver detection or driver awareness determination – though there is a driver alert when the computer discovers it can no longer proceed on its own. The lack of driver detection explains the YouTube videos with Tesla “drivers” pictured in the rearseat during vehicle operation. Tesla’s autopilot is almost entirely ad hoc and up to the driver with Tesla relieved of responsibility.

Outside of Germany, most car companies have indicated their plans to skip Level 3 because of what is seen as an insurmountable challenge of somehow implementing a safe hand-off of control from computer to human. German car companies are so far still seeking to enable a Level 3 experience since it appeals to their interest in preserving and extending the role of the human driver in vehicle control – ie. BMW’s “Ultimate driving experience.” Maybe this becomes the ultimate ASSISTED driving experience.
The question, therefore, is how long it will take to transition from a steering wheel-centric Level 2 automated driving experience to a steering wheel-optional Level 4 and whether Level 4-capable cars will continue to have steering wheels. And, further, what role will this Level 4 vehicle play? Will the car be owned and will anyone want to own this car?

My steering wheel-enhancing friend at Guttersberg is approaching automated driving from a completely different standpoint. Rather than STARTING with automated driving as the goal of the complete driving experience, his company views automated driving as a default system to protect the driver from him or herself or in the event of incapacitation or driver distraction.

Guttersberg’s technology is intended to recognize when the driver has taken control or re-taken control of the car or, even more importantly, when the driver has lost control of the car. In the event of driver distraction or a medical emergency, Gutterberg’s technology will detect the presence or absence of a hand on the wheel.

Should the driver’s hand leave the wheel due to fatigue or medical emergency, the Guttersberg-enhanced steering wheel will alert a system that will allow the car to shift automatically to an automated safe mode and call for assistance, if appropriate. The steering wheel airbag will also be there to protect the driver in the event of a crash.

A host of companies including TRW and Autoliv are focused on enhancing the steering wheel to make driving safer, while companies like Guttersberg and Neonode are focusing on using the steering wheel as the ultimate driving sensor and interface. The steering wheel of the future will detect the driver and his or her attention to the driving task.

Guttersberg’s vision of automated driving is a compelling one. Automated driving becomes the ultimate safety system – always standing by to take control when the car is in danger of a potentially catastrophic maneuver. Guttersberg’s resistive sensors, which do not interfere with steering wheel heating, also enable interfaces for accessing content and other applications.

Automated driving becomes the default driving mode in this view, rather than the primary driving mode. Looking at automated driving this way shifts the automated driving thought process away from a door-to-door Level 4 phenomenon with all of the related challenges and ownership disruption, to the ultimately safe driving experience desired by most car buyers. In such a world steering wheels are far from buggy whips. They are an essential tool for making driving safer.

Roger C. Lanctot is Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. More details about Strategy Analytics can be found here:

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